The Austin Music Atlas
A primer for the musically inclined
By Emily Gibson,
3:30PM, Tue. Jun. 14, 2016
Living in Austin, it isn’t shocking for a waitress, professor, car repairperson, accountant, or barista to casually mention their band’s “sick show this weekend.” Everyone – and we mean everyone – plays music.
When Austin was christened the “Live Music Capital of the World” in 1991, it wasn’t because the city had scads of buzzy acts, but rather because it was supposedly home to the most live music venues per capita in the world. Two decades down the road and despite doomsday-esque predictions as venues began to close, the city is still home to an impressive number of clubs, and it’s easy to hear any musical genre any night of the week.
The Red River District, running along the namesake boulevard from Sixth to Twelfth streets, is a haven for music fans. With the illustrious Stubb’s (801 Red River) hosting the bigger names that pass through town, smaller clubs have established themselves in the surrounding buildings. Among them is Cheer Up Charlies (900 Red River), an unofficial HQ for queer culture that often hosts local indie and rock music for little to no cover. Further down Seventh, closer to I-35, Empire Control Room and Garage (606 E. Seventh) specializes in electronic music and hip-hop, with two outdoor stages and an indoor stage in a large white room with projected images on nearly every wall. Touring and national acts have a ticketed price, but smaller, local shows are usually around $5. Hard rock, metal, and punk enthusiasts find their scene at an inconspicuous brick building with a sign reading Beerland Texas (711 Red River). And almost on the border between the Red River District and Downtown, Swan Dive (615 Red River) is both a live music club and entrance to the adjacent and somewhat notorious dance club, Barbarella. It’s a mixed bag of entertainment at Swan Dive – acts range from local bands of all genres to karaoke – but the cover is typically cheap, and a hand stamp works for both Barbarella and Swan Dive.
For those brave enough, the stretch of Sixth Street bars west of I-35 (aka, “Dirty Sixth”) is also a good place to catch a show. The Flamingo Cantina (515 E. Sixth) hosts reggae, worldbeat, and ska – what they call “good vibes music” – in the club’s intimate room. Nearby, DJs and electronic dance acts perform in the Vulcan Gas Company (418 E. Sixth), which usually projects light shows and videos on the walls around the stage. Irish pub B.D. Riley’s (204 E. Sixth) showcases exclusively local Austin musicians with no cover charge and has a “Sunday Irish Tune Session.” There is also live music seven nights a week at Friend’s Bar (208 E. Sixth), The Thirsty Nickel (325 E. Sixth) and Maggie Mae’s (323 E. Sixth), all of which are located along that same stretch. The nearby Elephant Room (315 Congress), a basement venue devoted to jazz music, also has free live music on weekdays with a small cover charge on weekends. A benefit: late at night on Friday and Saturday, police prohibit cars from driving on Sixth, making the entire street a giant pedestrian thoroughfare. A downfall: there will be a wade through the drunken inhabitants of the street to get to whatever venue you choose. A tip: walk on Fifth or Seventh until you arrive at the cross street that the venue is on, then cut over to Sixth. Or just jump in and enjoy the voyage as a pinnacle of Austin nightlife.
The Eastside, a short walk or pedicab ride under I-35 and farther out from the insanity of a downtown weekend, is home to several more venues. Hotel Vegas (1502 E. Sixth), dubbed “East Austin’s Best Venue” by the very modest Hotel Vegas, has live music almost every night of the week. There’s a small stage inside with pool tables and a photo booth. Food trucks and tables reside outside for those willing to brave the heat. Next door neighbor and Hotel Vegas affiliate Volstead Lounge (1500 E. Sixth), splits its time hosting shows or just being a cool place to grab a drink. Find the stereotypically Texan honky-tonk at The White Horse (500 Comal), which specializes in music for two-stepping. The venue never has a cover and will, according to their Facebook, “rock your sweet ass.” An intriguing promise.
Though the bulk of venues are Downtown, other cool spots that litter the city are accessible via car or bus. The Sahara Lounge (1413 Webberville Rd.) specializes in African music but also features world, funk, reggae, and others. Since it is a bit out of the way, there is free parking outside. The self-proclaimed “swankiest bar on South Congress,” C-Boy's Heart & Soul (2008 S. Congress) specializes in R&B and soul music, but doesn’t confine itself to those genres. A staple of the Austin music scene since its opening in 1955, The Continental Club (1315 S. Congress) has artists from a variety of genres in its historic venue. Another Austin stronghold, Saxon Pub (1320 S. Lamar), hosts a range of acts in an intimate setting on South Lamar. As its name implies, Broken Spoke (3201 S. Lamar) is a honky-tonk dance hall on South Lamar that prides itself on hosting Austin’s “real” country acts. Originally a punk venue downtown that became a bigger venue on the Eastside, Emo’s (2015 E. Riverside) books bigger acts and touring bands. Up north, the Little Longhorn Saloon (5434 Burnet) is another honky-tonk stronghold that never charges a cover and, on Sundays, hosts “chicken shit bingo” – just Google it.